BOSTON (CBS) — Chicken and beer.
Those two simple words came to symbolize the dysfunction and disaster that came to define the 2011 Boston Red Sox. In the months that followed that historic September collapse, the issues only multiplied, with Bobby Valentine leading the charge as the Red Sox became the laughingstock of Major League Baseball.
Though it’s only early December and there’s a long way to go, the Red Sox at least appear to be heading in the direction of restoring order, respectability and professionalism to the team that so badly lost its way over the past 16 months.
It sounds simple, but for a baseball team to be good, it needs ballplayers — guys whose lives revolve around putting on spikes and spitting tobacco all day every day. In a sport so overtaken by statistics, advanced numbers and sabermetrics (a word with a circular definition and no real meaning), the Red Sox appear to be remembering that if you want your team to win, you need human beings — not spreadsheets — to do it.
Make no mistake: the additions of Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino and Jonny Gomes won’t magically turn a 69-win, last-place team into a World Series contender. That transformation won’t happen until the Sox’ pitching staff climbs its way out of the bottom third of the league in just about every statistical category.
But at least it’s a start.
Think about the players who have become the most-respected among the organization and fan base over the last 10 or so years. Jason Varitek was named the captain and was a man whose entire existence was based on playing baseball. Trot Nixon earned the “dirt dog” label by throwing his body all over the ballpark every day. Dustin Pedroia remains one of the most popular Red Sox for playing a similar style and never taking one minute off. David Ortiz became a local legend for his walk-off hits, but until last year, he also earned his reputation by playing 145 games per season from ’04-’11. Think of Mike Lowell, and only one word should come to mind: ballplayer.
The Red Sox appear to be following the simple plan of adding ballplayers to a team desperately in need of a clubhouse culture change. It started with the hiring of John Farrell, a no-nonsense baseball man whose primary focus will be on the field, not in the media. No longer will the manager of the Red Sox be a walking, talking Bozo impersonator. Instead, the man leading the team will be a tried and true baseball lifer.
And Farrell will have players who show up to work every day for a simple reason. They’ll be there to play baseball.
Did they overpay? Sure, of course, but in the modern day of baseball, when 37-year-old Marco Scutaro is getting $20 million over three years and 37-year-old Alex Rodriguez and his one hip are guaranteed $114 million over the next five years, it’s not worth getting worked up over the millions being thrown around on Yawkey Way.
Red Sox ownership was no doubt embarrassed by the season-long failure of 2012. They may be concerned with “the Monster,” the PR and the “Fenway experience,” but they know that without a competitive team, all of that disappears and the money stops pouring in. The way to sustain success has proven to not be making major December splashes and generating offseason buzz, and the Red Sox are doing what they can to building a solid clubhouse. The lack of such an environment was the biggest culprit in the events of the past two seasons, and they began their efforts to start anew with the August blockbuster trade. Through the early stages of the offseason, they appear to be on the same track.
It may not be evident in box scores or stat sheets, and really, there’s no guarantee it will work, but the additions of solid players with solid character is a movement the team desperately needed. The Red Sox may not be World Series champs next October, but at least they’ll once again have a clubhouse with some professionalism, accountability, and above all else, ballplayers.
If they can add some pitching (perhaps in a Jacoby Ellsbury trade), then you just might be surprised to see a complete ball club out on the field competing night in and night out. After two seasons of failure, this new formula is clearly worth trying.